Whither ICT for Jamaica?

Whither ICT for Jamaica?

Marcia Forbes PhD

Congratulations to all the Graduates. Today marks the official closure of the ICT Training programme so generously facilitated by the Government of India, and which included several partners for its successful execution. The Government of Jamaica, HEART Trust NTA and its subsidiary agencies and the Excelsior Community College have all been critical to the success of this ICT Training Centre, a Centre of Excellence.

A Spotty Track Record in ICT

While Jamaica cannot yet claim any real and sustained success in the ICT sector, training programmes such as this one initiated by the kind consideration of the Government of India will help to lay the foundation for success. As we say in Jamaica, ‘one one coco full basket’, but to be honest we need many, many more cocos and we need them quickly in our ICT basket if ICT is to deliver its anticipated promise to Jamaicans. Jamaica is a mere 1% of the regional market for Business Process Outsourcing (what most know as call centres).

Recently we heard the PSOJ talking about the 20,800 jobs which BPO could pull in by 2015 IF there is investment and expansion. Well it’s the tiny word ‘if’ that is so troubling!! With regard to ICT and its potential, I’ve been hearing that ‘if’ word for several years now.

Information communication technologies are always front of mind for me. This has been so for over 25 years when my husband and I started Phase Three Productions Company, a multi-media television production company. I have a passion for media and for the wider area of communication. It is this passion which led to my first book titled, Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica. It is this passion which has driven me to be fully engaged with writing a second book for which the working title is ‘Youths Online’. And it is this passion which recently led me to accept the Chairmanship of the Jamaica Collaborative for Universal Technology Education.

Jamaica Collaborative for Universal Technology Education

The mission of the Jamaica Collaborative for Universal Technology Education is to train teachers in the use of ICT. Some of the graduates of this ICT Centre of Excellence may go on to become teachers. They may even attend the Shortwood Teachers’ College where the Jamaica Collaborative for Universal Technology Education is about to run a programme training teachers in ICT. This supports the work of eLearning Jamaica, an entity which we know of necessity has had to conduct some teacher training as a part of rolling out computer and other ICT components across high schools. As we all know, lifelong training and learning are essential in any knowledge society and nowhere is this more essential than in ICT since the technologies change almost faster than the speed of light it seems.

The focus of the Jamaica Collaborative for Universal Technology Education is on training student teachers, training the trainers as it were, not on training school children. There is need for both. But outside of ICT training there is also a great need to determine how those who have been trained, those who are skilled in the use of ICT, are really using this skill and this knowledge.

Whither Jamaicans & ICT?

How are Jamaicans really using new communication technologies? What are we doing when we go online? How are we using the beautiful smart phones that everyone aspires to own? This question started to haunt me as I gathered data toward my first book. As I learnt of some of the ways in which our teenagers were using their cell phones and the internet, it made me want to delve deeper.

Because my 1st book focussed on sexuality issues in relation to media consumption, I heard quite a bit about the ways in which cell phones served to facilitate sexual assignations and the ways in which the internet aided and abetted hours spent watching pornography. But surely Jamaicans must be using these powerful new technologies in other ways! Surely Horst & Miller in their 2006 book, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, based entirely on the use of cell phones in Jamaica, must have missed some of the ways in which these phones were creating jobs and employment for Jamaicans.

Or if they didn’t miss this, surely since 2006 when that book was published, a great deal would have changed. Enhanced cell phones are powerful tools and were not as prevalent in 2006 and web 2.0 hadn’t yet taken root in Jamaica. Social networks hardly existed in 2006. Facebook was officially launched in 2005, the same year YouTube was launched; While Twitter was only launched in July 2006 and LinkedIn later that same year in December.

Yet in just five to six years we have already seen how these social networks have revolutionized relationships and how social media like texting and tweeting have driven the creation of a new language where we all LOL (laugh out loud), DWL (dead with laugh), ROFL (roll on floor laughing) but usually only in text –usually virtually not actually!! Although I will confess that whenever I use LOL, it’s because I’m smiling or really laughing out loud.

As we train more and more Jamaicans into ICT competencies, we need to reflect on the kinds of differences these persons are making within our society. Are they helping us to achieve this Vision 2030 that we talk about—making Jamaica THE PLACE OF CHOICE TO LIVE, WORK, RAISE FAMILIES AND DO BUSINESS ... ?

 Is ICT playing its role in driving us toward attainment of this vision? Or are we simply fooling ourselves with nice sounding words and chasing a pipe dream? If we had this in place or if we had that in place then we could achieve this or we could achieve that.

Some Tough Questions
We hear the talk about universal access but do we know the real level of broadband penetration across Jamaica. In any event how is broadband defined? What speed have we accepted? And what do we really mean when we talk about the digital divide? Is it simply having physical access to a computer and to the internet? Where does attitude come in, where technophobia prevent us from grasping the opportunities and therefore effectively keeping digital divide firmly in place. What do we really mean when we talk about access? What is access and what is Universal Access?

These are tough and contentious questions. But we must answer them. In one of my focus group discussions with students in deep rural Jamaica, a few teenagers spoke passionately about internet access as a basic human right. One in particular spoke about how deprived she felt because she only had access at school and to her that was just not good enough. A boy from downtown Kingston told me how he gets angry when he can’t get his school assignment done because again, he only has access to the internet at school.

These young Jamaicans feel deprived and short-changed. They do not believe that internet access at school is sufficient for them! And what of the attitudinal digital divide mentioned earlier, where there is access but this is blocked by a mental attitude which sees the internet as a dangerous or wasteful place? One teacher told me how she covers up the computer because she doesn’t want to be distracted by it but with probing I realize that it is fear because she is really doesn’t know how to use it.

It is the quest to answer some of the tough issues pertaining to how we as Jamaicans really feel about ICTs and the ways in which we are using them that continues to drive me as I collect data toward my second book, Youths Online.

Youths Online

How are we really using ICTs and to what end? I’ve collected questionnaires from 300 Jamaicans mainly ranging from 17 to 30 years of age and so far I’ve conducted about ten focus groups and small group discussions with Guidance Counsellor and with students. Although data-gathering is still in progress, I want to share with you some of the responses to my question what does the internet mean to you? These responses are from the 17 to 19 years olds in school. Listen to what a few of them had to say:

1) The internet is accessed frequently for use of the world most popular social network site ‘facebook’ which creates an elite cyber-culture on global environment to hook up with long missed friends from the past. It is used for youtube uploading and downloading of music videos. – This was from a girl in rural Jamaica.

2) It means a lot when you have internet. You can go to facebook. Download what you want. Research project that the teacher gave you. – This from a boy in rural Jamaica

3) The internet means a lot to me because it teaches me a lot of things that I did not know, it gives me a lot of answers to most of my question, it is fun because we can play game, watch movies, play music and a whole lot of things that can keep me on it. I can do a lot of things on the internet at the same time I’m on facebook and on you tube at the same time. – This from a boy in rural Jamaica.

Yesterday when I spoke with girls from three of our traditional high schools, our so-called ‘up-town’ schools, it was quite disheartening to hear that compared to using the internet for facebook, use for school work, as they said took, ‘only about five minutes’. This is in contrast to the numerous hours they spend on facebook, It Girl and gossip sites. I must tell you that so far, the focus group discussions highlight how little time is spent online for school work versus time spent watching porn, fassing in people’s business, sussing and getting into mixup.

I’m still in data- collection mode and so have only just started to review some of what I’ve already gathered. It’s a slower process than I’d like because I’m self-funded but I’m committed to exploring ICT-related issues and to writing this book. It is only by measuring and evaluating what we are doing that we can properly harness the true powers of ICT.

A Charge to the Graduates

Today’s graduates must seriously contemplate how they are going to use the ICT knowledge and training they have gained because there are no jobs out there sitting and waiting for them and ICTs have proven their effectiveness and capacity in helping entrepreneurs. I meet them every day on Twitter. But those on twitter do not represent the average Jamaican as most of them (excluding the local celebrities) are employed and have a university degree. They read, they blog and they are usually very ICT savvy. When I read their responses to ‘what the internet means to me’, they give me tremendous hope. But as I repeat, they are not the average Jamaican.

So today’s graduate I encourage you to explore how you can use ICT in your own job creation and development. It can do far more than endless hours on Facebook and Twitter chatting and fassing into other people’s business. Unfortunately, Horst & Miller found that Jamaicans were mainly using cell phones to chat and not to facilitate earning a living, except the taxi drivers. I anticipate that my own research work will show that we’ve grown up since 2006 and are using ICTs more productively.

However, if the focus group discussions I’ve conducted so far with guidance counsellors from ten (10) high schools, both traditional and non-traditional and with fifty (50) students from both country and town schools plus the 200 questionnaires I’ve already collected and started reviewing as to what they internet means to me, if what I am picking up from these overall is anything to go by, then we need to take a serious look at how Jamaica is going about ICT education for school children.

The sense I’m getting so far, is that for our students, the internet makes homework easy. So it can be done in ‘5 minutes’ and the rest of the 55 minutes in any hour devoted to often aimless activities on facebook, hi5, myspace and youtube, the most commonly mentioned social sites by our teenagers. The same researcher Horst who co-authored the book on how Jamaicans were using the cell phone also co-authored a book on how Trinidadians were using the internet. The differences between cell phone use in Jamaica and internet use in Trinidad were stark. Although the comparisons are not straightforward, the point has to be made that in Trinidad the use of ICT was taking a far more productive line than in Jamaica.

In closing I want to implore the graduates to think carefully and to choose wisely how they use ICTs. How they use this wonderful opportunity of ICT Training that the Centre of Excellence has provided them with through the kind support of the Government of India.